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10. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
Don't let its position at No. 10 mislead you. Report is funny, sometimes unexpectedly moving — the interview with Stephen Sondheim was a magnificent example of deep knowledge and affection — and more influential than ever (which will only become more apparent as the presidential race heats up). Stephen Colbert continues to make TV's most sustained piece of performance art as satire, activism (never underestimate the influence of the Colbert Super PAC), and pure silliness.
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9. Enlightened (HBO)
In what is the year's most polarizing new comedy, creator-costar Mike White and star Laura Dern teamed up to present a portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Dern's Amy is high-strung and intelligent, stubborn and sympathetic. It's the rare piece of pop culture that doesn't sneer at an attempt to achieve spiritual bliss. Kudos to HBO for the second season renewal!
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8. The Good Wife (CBS)
Yes, yes, Alicia and Will getting together was the series' most audacious move, but this is a drama that achieves its best effects through accretion of detail. No other network show crams as many subplots that reveal so much about the characters' characters. So ultimately Alicia-Will was less important than the way The Good Wife has taken chances in allowing Chris Noth's Peter to become more vindictive, Archie Panjabi's Kalinda more marginalized, and Alan Cumming's Eli more humble. All these shifts cohere to create a more vivid, realistic life for the show. It's been a growing season for The Good Wife, and while its ratings suffered in its move to Sunday nights, it remains lively with manifold pleasures.
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7. Downton Abbey (PBS)
Demonstrating there's a lot of life left in the old PBS Masterpiece franchise, Abbey was the year's most elegant period piece, as well as the most cleverly plotted. Instead of remaking a work of classic literature, creator Julian Fellowes cherry-picked from the masters: The early-20th-century upstairs-downstairs activities partook of Jane Austen, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, and Charlotte Brontë to achieve a swooningly good drama/romantic comedy/mystery saga.
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6. Justified (FX)
By literally going back to its roots — Justified's Southern backwoods environs from which Timothy Olyphant's Raylan Givens emerged — the series crafted an elemental story line about family treachery, buckshot blasts, meth dealing, and property rights. Margo Martindale justly won an Emmy for her embodiment of a malicious matriarch, while Walton Goggins snagged a nomination for the way his Boyd Crowder reestablished a central role as Raylan's most formidable foe and friend.
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5. Louie (FX)
Unexpected wonders occurred when star-writer-director-editor Louis C.K. decided to push his show into more narrative extremes, allowing scenes to run on longer than anyone would expect. Just recall him singing and air-drumming to the Who's ''Who Are You,'' in its entirety, while driving: Instead of being boring, it became an epiphany, revealing more about TV Louie's soft heart and his children's fascinated reactions. In insisting on upping the kitchen-sink-drama quotient in the comedy, Louie became TV's most distinctive, uniquely paced half hour.
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4. Homeland (Showtime)
The year's best new series proved to be this CIA suspenser. Claire Danes and Damian Lewis are 2011's oddest yet bestest couple — an angsty agency operative (Danes) who's drawn to a newly freed prisoner of the Iraq war (Lewis), even as she suspects he may be a traitor. Every week, the show was the TV version of a difficult crossword puzzle — highly satisfying to complete. Featuring twists that leave you feeling jolly well manipulated, Homeland never lets you think you really know the true motives and allegiances of any of its major characters. Bonus points for Mandy Patinkin as the sort of mentor we all wish we had: bristlingly smart, brutally honest, bracingly loyal. Maybe.
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3. Fringe (Fox)
Fans fearful that following Olivia, Walter, and the elusive Peter into a third timeline might result in a trip down an unsatisfying narrative rabbit hole need not have worried. Fringe remains fearless — in a time when cutting-edge television is supposed to be dark, edgy, or pessimistic — about asserting the notion that life is a never-ending wonder capable of healing souls and bringing people together in inexplicable ways. Fringe works in the speculative-fiction sci-fi genre to deal with themes of unity and duality, the spirit and the soul, love, and the agony of love's absence.
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2. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Why is Parks and Rec the year's best sitcom? Because it's so many things: It offers network TV's funniest ensemble cast, an unexpectedly budding romance (who'd have picked Amy Poehler and Adam Scott as NBC's sweetest lovebirds?), a wickedly sharp satire of empty-headed 21st-century economics (thanks to the glorious failure of Entertainment 7Twenty, the loony start-up by Aziz Ansari's Tom Haverford), and a haven for great guest-star turns (Megan Mullally, Parker Posey, Will Forte).
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1. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Just when you thought Breaking Bad could not become more tense, more witty, more elegantly shot, or more exuberantly acted, along came season 4, with Bryan Cranston as a Walter White newly attuned to his own capacity for revenge and evildoing. If the most memorable lines of the year came from Walter's ''I am the one who knocks'' speech, in which he owned the bad behavior he'd previously justified as helping his family, the year's most indelible image was the horror face of Giancarlo Esposito's Gus, half blown off by an explosion in the season finale. In between the speech and the image, Walter and Aaron Paul's Jesse slithered past the relentless investigation into their meth lab by Walter's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and neatly avoided being messed up by Jonathan Banks' hitman extraordinaire Mike. Series creator Vince Gilligan avoided all the traps of hard-boiled, ''gritty'' TV — there's no cheap cynicism, no pretentiously existential dread weighing down this work. Instead, there was a sunny energy to the way Walter's wife, Skyler (the glowing Anna Gunn), took to the life of a criminal accountant running a gleaming car wash to launder the drug profits. Even Gus, the series' thus-far-ultimate foe for Walter, had an air of prim jauntiness to him, adjusting his tie shortly after going ka-boom. That's Bad: So good, it could make a skull smile.
Next: Worst TV of 2011
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WORST 5. Charlie's Angels (ABC)
The Angels reboot foundered on a misconception — namely, that viewers wanted real drama and backstory in the Angels' saga, when what they really wanted was sunniness and ample glimpses of skin. Lively trash would have been fun; serious trash is just glum.
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WORST 4. Charlie Sheen and the media's symbiotic craziness
Wow, has a catchphrase ever aged faster than ''Winning!''? Sheen's implosion as an out-and-proud hooker and drug-loving libertine cost him his job on Two and a Half Men and rendered him a yammering bore, showing up everywhere from ABC's Nightline to Dateline NBC to CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight — everywhere, that is, except on his CBS sitcom — to keep himself famous.
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WORST 3. Nancy Grace's coverage of the Casey Anthony trial (HLN)
Before she made a spectacle of herself on Dancing With the Stars, Grace made a monster of herself covering the Casey Anthony trial. Night after night, Grace hammered away at Anthony with a vituperation that undercut any sensible speculation about the accused's guilt. The host's worst sin was to make the crime of the accused seem less important than Nancy Grace herself.
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WORST 2. Wilfred (FX)
The year's most irritating new sitcom. Wilfred had a blank-faced Elijah Wood as lovelorn Ryan, communing with a horny, abrasive dog, Wilfred (Jason Gann, the Australian actor-writer-creator, in a dog suit). Ick: dog-costume sight gags and panting punchlines about doggy sex.
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WORST 1. The Playboy Club (NBC)
The fall season's most obvious, they-shoulda-seen-it-coming flop. Why was NBC so eager to try to rip off the period-piece atmosphere of Mad Men when a broadcast network needs so many more viewers than Mad Men gets?